Local, state and federal officials are continuing to urge all of the state’s residents to prepare for powerful Hurricane Irma, which is set to begin affecting South Florida by the weekend. Government authorities are gearing up, too.
In briefings on Wednesday, Florida Governor Rick Scott called Irma a massive, possibly devastating storm, with extreme winds and a projected storm surge that could go for miles. He compared it to Hurricane Andrew, which was a Category 5 storm when it struck Florida in 1992.
"The storm is bigger, faster, and stronger than Hurricane Andrew."
To help the state prepare, Scott has declared a state of emergency, waived bridge and road tolls, and he has begun activating members of the Florida National Guard, with 1,000 activated since Tuesday and another 6,000 to report by Friday.
"In addition, 13 helicopters and more than 1,000 tactical high water vehicles are on stand-by. The Florida National Guard is coordinating with other states and the National Guard Bureau to ensure approximately 30,000 troops, 4,000 trucks, 100 helicopters and air evacuation crews are ready to support our state," Scott said.
Scott says the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission has  teams of officers and equipment on standby, with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Highway Patrol, Highway Safety and other agencies also preparing.
The federal government is ready, says U.S. Senator Bill Nelson. He and Sen. Marco Rubio joined Gov. Scott at a mid-day briefing in Miami-Dade County.
To assist the state’s preparations, Nelson says they’ve contacted all the elements of the federal government.
"We’ve spoken directly to Brock Long, the FEMA Director. He is prepositioning people as well as supplies although FEMA is quite stretched as you can imagine with all that’s going on in Texas."
But, as Irma approaches, Nelson and Rubio want to ensure resources are set aside for Florida, so they’re calling on Senate leaders to include additional funding in a $7.85 billion disaster aid package the House passed earlier on this Wednesday for Hurricane Harvey.
When it comes to government readiness, Nelson assured officials would be proceeding with “lessons learned” from previous storms. For example, he notes the readiness efforts of the U.S. Coast Guard.
"They have moved the ships that were in the storm’s path..will be back in with ships and aircraft to assist. We’ve talked to the US military. You’re not going to see what happened in Hurricane Katrina, where the U.S. military and national guard were operating on separate things without coordination."
Meantime, Rubio updated FEMA’s response in activating all of its regions, including Region 4 in Atlanta, which is now operating on a 24-hour basis.
Senator Rubio added, "There are two FEMA incident management assistance teams and liaison officers at the FL EOC, along with the state team with the Gov, in Tall. Also, additional FEMA liaisons now enroute and prepositioning in North Carolina and South Carolina, also two disaster medical assistance teams headed to Valdosta, GA."
Additionally, FEMA has now moved more than 8.5 million liters of water, nearly 6.6 million meals, and scores of other needed items that may be needed to Maxwell AFB in Montgomery. But, he cautions those supplies won’t be available until sometime after the storm has cleared, so individuals need to be able to sustain themselves for three to five days.
Rubio continued, "Be prepared please, this is a very ugly storm and it’s going to deeply impact some part of Florida, large parts of Florida potentially, no matter what direction this takes over the next few hours, we’re going to feel it. Get ready."
Evacuation of the Florida Keys began on this Wednesday, with other evacuation orders expected as Irma gets closer to the state and its path becomes more certain. At this point, the Florida Panhandle is not in line for direct impact, but residents here are encouraged to be prepared just in case, and to stay tuned for any updates from local emergency management officials.